Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine-View from Boat

Well, I made it back to civilization after a challenging five days in this beautiful national park. Let´s just say that if I hadn´t quit the Girl Scouts in the 5th grade, I would certainly have earned myself several new merit badges. I think I hiked around 35-40 miles, which is about 1 mile for every pound of gear I carried on my back. Here is the summary:

Day 1: On the boat to the start of the hike, I meet three Frenchman and an American, and we head up the trail to the Glacier Grey. My plan is to do the open portions of the W-shaped trail, which is called, unsurprisingly, "the W". The easternmost-leg of this hike is closed to visitors because of the forest fire. The trail is not too difficult, but it is humbling to lag behind the relatively unprepared French Guys, two of whom are wearing jeans and smoking, one of whom is wearing loafers! The wind coming off the glacier is vicious! It is so intense that I have to fight to remain upright, and Sophie gets blown off her feet twice! But the views are beautiful. About halfway up the trail, we see icebergs in the lake! I have never seen icebergs before! They are small, and an intense blue color. I try to get a good look and we take pictures, trying not to get blown over in the process. I have chosen the wimpy route for this first night, and I´m staying in a "refugio", or sort of lodge. At $20 in a room with 8 bunks, where I have to provide my own sleeping bag, this wins for the most expensive accommodation so far on my entire trip. I vow to stay in free campsites from now on. The others stop with me for a break and we get some beers, however we judge them too warm and decide they need to be cooled down. What better way than by resting them on an iceberg! We feel that we are enjoying our break in true Patagonian style.

I continue on with them for another 45 minutes until we get to the viewpoint looking out over the glacier. It is beautiful, and I am surprised at the shades of blue that I see. I thought it would be white and gray! It is huge, and comes all the way down to the water. We take some pictures, and agree to meet up tomorrow at the next campsite. I return to the warmth of my refugio.

Day 2: I take off at 8 to head back down the trail. All of my muscles are sore and the first half of the trail is uphill, so there is some grumbling and a small amount of swearing. I take a break at the bottom, and in a better mood head up for the second leg of the W. This is a beautiful trail, with panoramic views of lakes and mountains, but the wind is doing its worst again! The lake I walk near is so blown by the wind that clouds of mist are being blown off of it, and there are waves large enough for medium-sized rodents to surf on! But I plow through to the campground and set up my tent. I am happy to meet the French Guys, and later Sophie, again, and even happier as they cook dinner for me to use up the last of their supplies. Soup, hot dogs and mashed potatoes, as well as bread with butter and tuna. Delicious!

Day 3: A rest day. This doesn´t mean that I rest, but that I get to leave my tent behind, with my backpack inside, to hike up the Valle del Francés and back, about 5 hours. I am floating over the rocks and trails without that heavy pack! What´s more, the wind has died down and the sun has come out. I love nature! It´s a great hike, not too difficult, with a gorgeous panoramic view at the top and a flat rock for napping. All is right with the world.

At night, I cook up some pasta on my gas stove, then bundle up to sleep. By some horrible form of trickery, the beautiful warm day has turned into a freezing cold night! I wake up at 3 AM curled into a whimpering little ball, and see by the glowing light of my alarm clock (also featuring thermometer) that it is 5 degrees celsius, or 40 degrees fahrenheit! It´s supposed to be summer! It´s coooooold! I am wearing every single layer of clothing I have, with hat and hood, and manage to keep myself from freezing.

Day 4: Happy to be moving (and therefore warm) again, I pack up my stuff to hike the 2 hours back down, the last leg of my hiking plan. It´s another beautiful day and I can feel myself getting sunburned. I think to myself that it´s a shame I didn´t get to see the actual Torres (Towers) del Paine themselves...especially since the trail to see them re-opened yesterday, but it just didn´t work with my plan. But the glorious thing about plans is...they can change! And when the bus stopped to pick up and drop off people at the Torres trail, I spontaneously decided to push on for one more day to see the park´s centerpiece. Feeling commendably adventurous, I stock up on what feels like approximately 800 pounds of provisions and head up the trail for the 3 hours to the next free campsite. Well, if someone had told me what hell this first hour would be, I would probably have stayed tucked away on that bus. It is straight uphill, with the sun beating down, and I feel that my heart might actually explode...and my legs and feet might actually fall off. Really, I can´t overemphasize how hard that one hour is. I do not like it one little tiny bit.

However, what I do like is the next two hours. This is the most often visited trail in the park, but that´s a crazy thought when you see it. This is not a trail for little old ladies (although I did see several, and to be honest, they seemed to be doing fine, and one of them even passed me) or small involves climbing through the woods hanging onto tree trunks for leverage, crossing streams by walking across a log or jumping from rock to rock, or descending a small cliff with the aid of a rope. It is loads of fun! With a giant pack strapped to your back, it becomes slightly more challenging, but I enjoy it immensely. I reach the campsite worn but pleased, have some dinner in the company of my new neighbors: an Israeli I met the day before, and and Irishman who comes bearing half a box of wine. I go to bed early, and set my alarm for 5:35 to catch the sunrise.

Day 5: I wake up at 6 AM by the sound of feet pounding past my tent: other campers heading off to the sunrise. Whoops! I set my alarm for 5:35 PM! I throw on my clothes and shoes and in a daze wake up Gal, my Israeli neighbor, and we head up the trail. Climbing over boulders and up stream beds in the dark is challenging, and it´s a pretty tough trail, especially when you´re half asleep. But I was hurried on by the approach of orange light in the east and the thought that after all that I might miss the sunrise! But happily we arrived with 15 minutes to spare, to see the towers glowing pink, then bright red, then orange and then yellow. A truly beautiful sight. I am truly happy to be there, and proud of myself to have made it. More than anything, I am blissful at the thought of a relatively easy hike back and a warm and soft BED to sleep in tonight.

I hike back down happily, thrilled to be able to enjoy the scenery, and to have enough breath to say "hola" to all the passing tourists, 90% of whom I´m sure don´t speak Spanish, though we all say "hola" to each other anyway. At the bottom I meet my two Irish neighbors and two Englishwomen I had seen on the trail and we bask in the sun with chocolate milk and ice creams, rewarding ourselves for our efforts.

On the way out we pass through the burned-out part of the park, and it is shocking to see. Fires are still burning in some areas, and firefighters are still working to put out the fire. The fire was started by a Czech backpacker who lit his gas stove in an area where fire was prohibited, then accidentally knocked it over. It is amazing to think that all of this damage (about 10% of the total area of the park) could be started by one backpacker, who, while admittedly careless, was almost certainly without ill intent.

Now I´ve moved on and I´m back in Argentina, preparing to see the Mother of all (Patagonian) Glaciers, El Glaciar Perito Moreno.